Holiday Season Abroad – Tempted To Give Up Your Traditions?

The traditional holiday season is approaching quickly – Thanksgiving, Sinter Klaas, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, just to name a few. You find yourself hesitating.


What are you going to do this year for the holidays?

You won’t go back to your home country. You won’t gather with all your extended family.

No, this year, you’ll be on your own. With your partner and your children.

So what should you do?

Follow your traditions trying to reproduce the familiar rituals? Adopt the customs of the host country? Blend both? Or just give up because you’ve got a headache when you only think about it…

On one hand, being only with your own family gives you more freedom. The freedom of choice. You’re not obliged to sit down at the dinner table with your parents, aunties and uncles, cousins and nephews. You don’t have to go to church to please your mom. You mustn’t eat the traditional roasted turkey with chestnuts. “A weird taste” according to the kids, wincing.

You don’t need to carefully pay attention at spending a rigorously equal number of days at your parents and your in-laws.

On the other hand, having to care “only” for your family brings with it more responsibilities. Everything rests on your shoulders. Are you going to maintain some rituals to pass on to your children ensuring they keep some of this vertical identity, a sense of what their roots are?

Here are 9 reasons why you’re not going to replicate what’s going on back “home”.

1. You’re tired.

You don’t have an extended support network in this place so you find yourself being on duty 24/7. For the children: playing the nurse, the entertainer, the teacher, the psychologist, the cheerleader, the cook, the taxi driver, the father, the mother, the grandparents…
For your partner: the secretary, the accountant, the housemaid, the lover, the organizer, the PR manager…
And on top, decorating the house, shopping for gifts, cooking all day long?
Who is going to look after you when you collapse?


2. You’re married with a person from another culture living in a foreign country for both of you.

It’s really tricky. If you want to keep up with all traditions, you’re basically busy all year round. You have to make choices. Last year, you made a great effort trying to re-create as best as possible the atmosphere you remembered as a child. But the magic of those moments were lost. Your partner and your kids couldn’t really relate to the deeper meaning it had for you. How frustrating!

Today, you’re discouraged: why bother? Yes, you feel tired. Back to #1.


3. You’re already from a mixed heritage, being yourself a Third Culture Kid.

Your parents used to add up the local customs to their original traditions. After having lived in 5 countries, you’ve got fond memories of Christmas in Heidelberg, Chinese New Year in Taipei, Hanukkah in Jerusalem, Epiphany in Italy and Dia de Muertos in Mexico. Which one are you going to keep?


4. Your partner has to work that day.

In a globalized world linked with the Internet, the notion of time has become obsolete. You can shop, communicate, learn and work 24/7. Whether your partner is part of an international team or in a profession requiring them to be on duty, they may have to work on Christmas or New Year’s Eve. The original purpose about creating holidays however was to separate the profane from the sacred, as mentioned by sociologist Amitai Etzioni. The emphasis was laid in getting together to reaffirm a sense of shared values and strengthen the ties between members of a same family or community. If you can’t be all reunited, what’s the point?


5. You want to fit in and not to stand out!

Your nationality or your religious beliefs are not particularly appreciated in your host country. You don’t want to be provocative or risk your safety. You feel very sad but you’ve chosen to downplay your cultural traditions for a while.


6. You’re in a country where your national holiday is non existent.

Sinter Klaas on the night from Dec 5th to Dec 6th is a national event in the Netherlands. Weeks before, children get excited about his official arrival broadcasted on TV. They speak about it at school, make drawings, listen to typical songs. Dec 5th in the afternoon is usually free for all employees heading back home to get prepared for the “gezellige avond” (cozy evening). The whole nation vibrates in unison: children and adults alike. Families gather all together, share a meal, exchange gifts and read poems aloud.

In France, there is no Sinter Klaas, no free afternoon, no particular excitement on Dec 5th. Celebrating Sinter Klaas in such a context doesn’t have the same meaning. You don’t feel you’re part of the wider society. You just feel even more isolated.


7. You forgot!

Nov 1st is a holiday in France. When I was young, we used to gather in the native village of my parents, attend vespers – a special Catholic ceremony – and then go from the church to the cemetery in procession. All the people would stand silently in front of the grave of their ancestors, honoring them while the priest would bless us all. Here in Australia, Nov 1st is a normal working day. I completely forgot the date!


8. You feel out of place

In case of Nov 1st and All Saints Celebration, living far away from the very place where the event is meaningful removes a lot of its impact. Of course, you can light a candle, buy some flowers or replace the collective ceremony by an individual act of remembrance, but there’s definitely not the same value attached. You don’t get the same atmosphere.

Talking about atmosphere… My children’s Canadian teacher told that when she came to Australia, she decided to celebrate Christmas as she knew it. She decorated the house with a Christmas tree full of artifical snow and bravely cooked the turkey in the oven. For hours, she suffocated in the kitchen by 30°C outside and summer in full swing. She did it once. Never again.


9. Unleash you rebel spirit: you don’t share the values conveyed by some of your cultural traditions anyway.

And this is a great opportunity to get rid of them!

Traditionally in France at year end, we eat some foie gras. It’s a delicatesse which is part of the meal. My son used to love it but after he made an essay at school about the production process of goose liver, he decided not to eat it ever again. Of course, end of year celebrations are not centered around foie gras only but it’s part of the tradition.

By the way, what have you stopped doing for the holidays?


Credit music Piano Society Credit picture @Wikimedia Commons 



  1. My first year “away”, determent to keep the most important – and of course moveable – traditions for me and my child(ren). Thinking traditions will be even more important for a familiy constant on the move in the world. Now we’re living in my partners country, so we’ll see how is family welcomes my traditions 😉 And with time how important they well be for me and my child(ren). Hope to read more comments from more experienced expats here. Good and bad experiences.

    • Thanks so much, Martha for sharing your thoughts. Don’t hesitate to report your findings after the holidays. I’d love to know how it went with your in-laws 🙂 All the best!

      2013/11/27 Disqus

      • As an ATCK I am grateful to my parents for the lengths they went to so that we could celebrate and learn about our traditions and holidays. Granted they were sometimes altered by the climate, the availability of food, or the environment, but at least we kept them. And some are ‘ homemade’ so not reliant on commercial activities to support or enable them. It’s important so that kids know their cultural roots.
        It’s worth the effort!


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